R.T.'s Change-Up

Playing hardball: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak gets into the stadium game
Diana Watters

One of the most effective components of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's campaign to unseat incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton last year was his charge that Sayles Belton had spent too much public money on large corporate projects in Minneapolis.

"Public funding for the Twins or Vikings?" Minnesota Public Radio host Gary Eichten asked during a crucial debate not long before the September 11 primary eliminated two of the four major candidates. "I say the metropolitan area pays for it, not the City of Minneapolis," Sayles Belton responded. "It's a statewide resource and we can't put it on the backs of the City of Minneapolis," Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein agreed. Minneapolis City Council member Lisa McDonald, who later said she hadn't heard the question, probably hurt her cause among stadium opponents when she replied that she "had to think about it." But Rybak's response was unambiguous: a terse "No."

Now, six months later, Rybak is singing a different tune. The new mayor is working with Hennepin County Board chair Mike Opat to secure legislative approval for a new stadium in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis. Hennepin County's $370 million proposal calls for raising $60 million through a tax on food, liquor, and hotels in the area where the ballpark would be built; another $60 million via a countywide tax on rental cars; and an additional $10 million to $30 million from a surcharge on parking garages in the vicinity.

"R.T. has been great," offers Opat, who says he was pleasantly surprised when the mayor contacted him and expressed interest in getting together to discuss the proposal. While acknowledging that Rybak doesn't agree with every aspect of the county's plan, Opat adds, "I honestly don't think we would be this far along if he was as hostile to this as he sounded in his campaign."

"The mayor's support has been critical," seconds Minneapolis City Council president Paul Ostrow, a strong stadium proponent. "R.T. has had great vision and creativity, looked at things very carefully, and really reached out to people."

Rybak, though, paints himself as a decidedly reluctant warrior. "To be really blunt, I don't want to be dealing with this when there are things like the budget [shortfall] and the affordable-housing crisis that need to be addressed," he says. "But since election night, I've had microphones in my face and have had to deal with a major business employing many entry-level people potentially pulling out of the city.

"I think it's wrong for the state to be considering another city for that business," the mayor adds, in reference to the lobbying effort being waged at the legislature by his St. Paul counterpart, Mayor Randy Kelly. "If the [ballpark funding] agenda is on the table, then I'm going to fight for our city."

Rybak believes his constituents are coming to feel the same way. "The situation has definitely changed with [the threat of] contraction, and I know from going door to door and to community meetings that the way people are thinking about this has also undergone a substantial change," he ventures. "At the same time, there's still a repulsion to this whole stadium thing when our schools are facing a crisis and we're battling an affordable-housing crisis. People should know that I'm working aggressively on those issues."

Rybak aims to transform the necessary evil of stadium funding into a more socially equitable opportunity. "From the get-go, we've tried to think creatively about this. For instance, right out of the chute I've thought about creating a development district [through tax-increment financing] in the area around the ballpark that can be used for affordable housing. I'm proud that because of our pushing, legislators are looking seriously into that; Hennepin County is looking into that. Maybe we can make an imperfect situation a little better."

The mayor also wants to ensure that the bulk of public revenues for the ballpark would be derived from user fees such as parking and ticket surcharges, rather than from wider sales taxes. "I'm responsible for what the city's contribution will be," says Rybak. "The key to that is that we don't take money from the serious needs in the schools, at city hall, or other parts of the city. The rest of this [funding debate] is being driven elsewhere."

And that, unfortunately, is the bottom line. It's difficult to discern whether Rybak's positive spin on what he can influence at the capitol is meant to boost his own spirits or those of his constituents. But having entered the venue of stadium politics, he's part of a game of legislative hardball, much of which is far beyond his control--involving hundreds of millions of dollars and pitting Minneapolis against St. Paul, with the Twins franchise pressing with its own leverage whenever possible.

"I don't think anyone has a problem with user fees," says Dan McGrath, executive director of Progressive Minnesota, a citizen group opposed to public funds for a ballpark. "But if that alone could build a stadium, it would have been done a long time ago. The Twins wouldn't be investing over a million bucks for lobbyists. And the legislature wouldn't be looking at [stadium] proposals that contain $130 million in public subsidies for the Hennepin County plan and about $187 million for the St. Paul plan."

The county's Mike Opat sees a long road ahead. "What the legislature is going to do is listen to all the stadium proposals and take what they like from each and attach it all to the primary author's bill," he posits. "Even then, they'll still haggle over it in conference committee. I've heard over and over that that's where this thing will eventually be decided--if they can even get the House to pass a bill. We've proposed a tax on rental cars just for Hennepin County. I've heard that they'll probably make it a seven-county metro tax [on car rentals] instead. That's fine by me; they're the bosses in this process."

Opat adds that it's unlikely that any initial stadium bill will designate a ballpark site, in order to spare metro legislators the prospect of voting for something that will benefit their rivals across the river--whichever side of the river that may be. Then there's the hurdle of a probable voter referendum to ratify whatever the legislature might manage to resolve. If, for example, a restaurant sales tax in downtown Minneapolis were implemented, it would generate more than $10 million in revenue; that would fly in the face of a 1997 referendum capping the city's contribution at $10 million, and so might require a new citywide vote.

Put simply, this game has barely begun. The difference for Rybak is that he has thrown in his lot for a potentially expensive--politically and economically--spot on the roster.

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